Volume 11, Number 9
on What Matters
is something in the persistent question How? that expresses each
person’s struggle between having confidence in their capacity to
live a life of purpose and yielding to the daily demands of being
practical. It is
entirely possible to spend our days engaged in activities that
work well for us and achieve our objectives, and still wonder
whether we are really making a difference in the world.
We have yielded too easily to what is doable and practical
and popular. In the
process, we have sacrificed the pursuit of what is in our hearts.
We find ourselves giving in to our doubts, and settling for
what we know how to do, or can soon learn how to do, instead of
pursuing what most matters to us and living with the adventure and
anxiety that this requires.
pick How? as a symbol simply because it is far and away the most
common question I hear. It
has always struck me that I can write or speak the most radical
thoughts imaginable. I
can advocate revolution, the end of leadership, the abolition of
appraising each other, the empowerment of the least among us, and
no one ever argues with me. The
only questions I hear are “How do you get there from here?
Where has this worked?
What would it cost and what is the return on investment?”
This has led me to the belief that the questions about How?
are more interesting than any answer to them might be.
They stand for some deeper concerns.
is Worth Doing?
often avoid the question of whether something is worth doing by
going straight to the question “How do we do it?”
In fact, when we believe that something is definitely not
worth doing, we are particularly eager to start asking How?
We can look at what is worth doing at many different
levels: As an
individual I can wonder whether I can be myself and do what I want
and still make a living. For
an organization I can ask for whose sake does this organization
exist and does it exist for any larger purpose than to survive and
be economically successful? As
a society, have we replaced a sense of community and civic
engagement for economic well being and the pursuit of our private
often when a discussion is dominated by questions of How? we risk
overvaluing what is practical and doable and postpone the
questions of larger purpose and collective well being.
With the question How? we risk aspiring to goals that are
defined for us by the culture and by our institutions, at the
expense of pursuing purposes and intentions that arise from within
we were really committed to the pursuit of what matters, we might
well be served to hold a moratorium on the question How?
There is an image I first heard from Jim Walker, a
change-oriented executive and good soul, who was put in charge of
a struggling AT&T business some years ago.
He used to ask, “What do you do when you find yourself in
a hole?” His answer
was, “The first thing you do is stop digging.”
That stuck with me. Most
of the time, when something I am trying does not work, I simply
try harder. If I am
trying to control a business, a project, or a relationship and it
is falling, then I doggedly do more of what is not working.
we could agree that for six months we would not ask How?,
something in our lives, our institutions, and our culture might
shift for the better. It
would force us to engage in conversations about why we do what we
do, as individuals and as institutions.
It would create the space for longer discussions about
purpose, about what is worth doing.
It would refocus our attention on deciding what is the
right question, rather than what is the right answer.
would also force us to act as if we already knew how—we just
have to figure out what is worth doing.
It would give priority to aim over speed. At some point we would either find the right question
or grow weary of its pursuit, and we would be pulled into
meaningful action, despite our uncertainty and our caution about
being wrong. It would support us in acting now, rather than waiting until
the timing was right, and the world was ready for us. We might put aside our wish for safety and instead view our
life as a purpose-filled experiment whose intention is more for
learning than for achieving and more for relationship than for
power, speed, or efficiency.
This might elevate the state of not knowing to being an acceptable condition of our existence rather than a problem to be solved, and we might realize that real service and contribution come more from the choice of a worthy destination than from limiting ourselves to engaging in what we know will work.